Audience Q&A Continued: Opportunities for a New Syria Foreign Policy

Maryam Zar (top left), Thomas McClure (top right), Charles Lister (botom left), and Dr. Zaki Lababidi (bottom right)

On July 7th, we hosted a livestream panel discussion, “Opportunities for Foreign Policy: Assad’s New Syria.” The panel analyzed Syria’s economic collapse, coronavirus response, and issues of displacement. It also uplifted the policy strategies that could move things forward. Due to the overwhelming volume of audience questions, we worked with our speakers to provide follow-up on questions that did not have the opportunity to be answered live. You can watch the full livestream on YouTube Here.

Questions for Charles Lister, Senior Fellow and Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Programs at the Middle East Institute with a focus on Syria.

Audience Question: What can we expect, or what should Syrians request, if there is a new U.S. administration in the next year, with regards to Syria?

CL: The biggest ask needs to be for a more serious investment in credible and assertive diplomacy – something that’s been sharply lacking under the Trump administration. It’s all well and good to retain sources of leverage and influence in Syria and to pressure the regime using sanctions, but if there isn’t a diplomatic off-ramp (or ‘carrot’) then the U.S. is engaged in a fruitless exercise. After all, we know after 9 years of destroying his own country that Bashar al-Assad will not simply step down by himself. Gathering what we know about VP Biden, I’d imagine diplomacy will be one of the first things on his list, as well as a Syria policy that better represents American values, particularly on the humanitarian side.

Audience Question: We hear news of SDF continued oil trade with the Assad regime despite the Caesar Bill. What is the US policy to enforce the Bill on our allies and the SDF?

CL: From what I gather, the U.S. will not seek to prevent the SDF from continuing its oil trade with the Syrian regime – as doing so would undercut one its most important sources of income, thereby weakening out (American) relationship with the SDF and jeopardizing our position in eastern Syria. With regards to nation-state allies in the region, the U.S. government (principally State and Treasury) have been largely mum on this question. For now, the policy appears to be predicated on the hope that the Caesar Act itself will prove a sufficient deterrent to prevent allied states from engaging financially with the regime. Should that fail and an ally – the UAE for example – engages, then I suspect the question will be whether the engagement is being done by the government itself (unlikely to be sanctioned) or by a business entity within the state’s territory (more likely to be sanctioned). Ultimately, for these diplomatically tricky issues, the decision will likely be made at the executive level.

Audience Question: Was the U.S. non-action to Assad’s crossing a “red line” in Syria a precursor to Putin being emboldened to cross another red line and invade Ukraine?

CL: I don’t think we’ll ever get a definitive acknowledgement of this (& other similar claims), but without a doubt, America’s decision to “blink” when faced with 1,400+ dead in a chemical weapons attack in Syria in August 2013 sent a message to Russia and other malign actors that the U.S. appetite for foreign military action was dwindling. And the natural takeaway from that lesson for many was to assume that one might have a greater chance to get away with more aggressive policies – effectively freeing up the likes of Russia to pursue their own interests with more perceived freedom. In Syria, it unquestionably emboldened the Assad regime, along with its two primary backers, Russia and Iran, to pursue a more and more aggressive response to opposition – including 350+ recorded uses of chemical weaponry.

Audience Question: It was made public some years ago that the Sunni resistance to Assad had some relationship with Israel – e.g. some wounded resistance officers and their families were treated in Israeli hospitals. Is there any information on where Israel stands in the conflict now?

 CL: Firstly, I should make a note that the opposition in Syria was not “Sunni” by identity, even if a majority of those who ended up taking arms were – this was merely a natural reflection of the ethnic balance in the country. The peaceful protest movement was genuinely representative of almost all sectors of Syrian society – prominent Christians and Alawites were leading protest leaders, and many who first started the protests were declared secularists.

Beyond that, Israel has long sat on the fence when it came to the opposition versus regime conflict in Syria, particularly given the uncertainty about what might come next and who precisely might have ended up being in charge. That hedging posture evolved in 2017-18 into one defined by “better the devil you know.” After many years dealing with the Assads, Israel concluded that the sheer complexity of the crisis meant that Israel would stand a better chance of managing its own national security if it knew who was in charge and it knew how best to deal with him. And thus, Israel has not turned “against” the opposition, but it no longer covertly supports it either. This has freed up space for Israel to re-assert the anti-Iran angle of its policy vis-à-vis Syria, and to escalate intelligence collection and military strikes in pursuit of that anti-Iranian agenda.


 Questions for Thomas McClure, Founding Member and Researcher with the Rojava Information Center—the leading independent news source on the ground in North and East Syria.

Audience Question: Can you comment on impact of the US Election on Syria and the disposition of people on the ground toward the U.S? (Do they hope or dare to assume that a change in administration will bring a change for the better in Syria policy)

TM:The impact on local people’s perceptions of the US caused by of Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw token garrisons of US troops from along the border with Turkey in 2019, opening the way to Turkish airstrikes, ground invasion and forcible demographic change, cannot be overstated. The SDF has proven itself the United States’ best partner in the war against terror, losing 10,000 fighters in its struggle to defeat ISIS. While political leaders in North and East Syria recognized that the US presence here was only ever strategic and constructed to serve US interests, locals were proud to see themselves as standing alongside the US in the fight against ISIS.

The trust broken in 2019 cannot easily be repaired, especially in a local culture which places high value on honour and keeping one’s word. In Kurdish regions, the US are still better-perceived than the Russians – following the war, Russian and Turkish patrols have been more often met with protests, pelted stones and trash than their US counterparts. There is the desire to rebuild a relationship with the US, but the US must prove its interests in NES are not really transactional.

Both candidates have the opportunity to make the Kurdish question a key plank of their foreign policy, demonstrating to voters at home that they are not going to repeat the betrayal of a key and popular ally, and that they are taking the terror threat posed by ISIS and security threat posed by Turkey seriously.

Trump has already said he wants to ‘protect the oil’ in Syria: practically speaking, this must mean granting a waiver to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria to sell oil outside of Syria, placing it outside the Caesar sanctions being imposed upon the Assad government and thus strengthening NES and weakening the Assad government in one strike, and supporting the opening of trade and humanitarian aid crossings and even an airport to facilitate this process. If Biden wants to prove that he is a safe pair of hands who will apply foreign policy that’s best for the USA, rather than strengthening the hands of foreign strongmen like Putin and Erdogan, he should announce the same steps.

Defeating ISIS, protecting the region’s vulnerable Christian minority from Turkish-sponsored jihadist groups, and strengthening the Kurds and the AANES as a bulwark of democracy and human rights in the region: these are all admirable policy aims which should make solidifying AANES’ status a hot-button issue in the coming election. Whichever candidate does so can expect to win back support here in NES, as well as among voters angered by Trump’s 2019 act of betrayal. 

Audience Question: Turkey is saying that SDF is organically tied to PKK, an organization it considers terrorist. Don’t Turkey’s concerns have any legitimacy?

TM: Turkey has repeatedly claimed that Syrian Democratic Forces constitute a threat to existence, but the facts on the ground prove the exact opposite. The Turkish-Syrian border is one of the deadliest in the world – for refugees trying to flee the war. Over 500 refugees have been shot dead by Turkish border guards since the start of the conflict.

A BBC investigation found that while Turkey claimed to have faced ‘700 cross-border attacks’ from Syria prior to invading Afrin, it had in fact experienced a mere 26 such incidents, only 15 of which came from Afrin – and many of which were no more than ‘bullets landing in a field’. Likewise, RIC research prior to Turkey’s 2019 invasion of NES found that Turkish forces had launched over 30 cross-border attacks against NES during 2019, killing dozens of civilians, and faced only one attack in return.

The reality is that the SDF have never launched any offensive against Turkey and never sought to encroach on Turkish territory. The SDF proved themselves the West’s best partners in the fight against terror, spearheading the campaign to defeat ISIS while upholding the region’s best standards of human rights and rule of law, even in regions newly-liberated from ISIS. Sacrifices made by SDF have doubtless protected the West from more devastating terror attacks, even as Turkey allowed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters, logistical support and ammunition to flood across its borders.

What Turkey cannot abide is the existence of a flourishing, Kurdish-led democracy on its borders, even as Turkey itself backslides into mass imprisonment, brutal anti-Kurdish policies and jihadist rhetoric. Turkey openly arms, trains, funds and commands radical Islamist militias like Jaysh-al-Islam, Ahrar-al-Sharqiya and Faylaq al-Sham, and it is Turkey who should be listed as a state sponsor of terror.

 Audience Question: Is the UN totally powerless in Syria? Does it do more harm than good?

TM: In a conflict as devastating as the Syrian war, the United Nations has a vital role to play in delivering humanitarian aid. North and East Syria alone is home to around a million IDPs and two million people in urgent need of humanitarian aid, per UN figures, and many of these people have benefited from UN-supported programs.

 Unfortunately, the UN is increasingly beholden to the Assad government and its Russian guarantors. Russia’s presence on the UN Security Council means it was able to force the closure of the sole cross-border aid crossing into North and East Syria back in January 2020, driving mass shortages and closures in health centers across North and East Syria, particularly in Raqqa and Hol Camp. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) is now forced to rely on UN aid routed via Damascus, but the reality is that precious little aid ever arrives to the AANES. Some is embezzled or simply disappears, as the Assad government routes aid into the pockets of those close to Assad, and since the closure of the gate only a couple of deliveries of basic PPE have arrived to NES.

 The UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) has supplied two PCR testing machines for coronavirus to the Assad government, but none to the AANES. Even when AANES medical authorities sent coronavirus samples to regime-held areas, they faced massive delays. The WHO failed to notify AANES of positive coronavirus results for two weeks, risking a lethal outbreak of the virus in NES by keeping doctors in the dark.

 In its political and lobbying capacity, the UN has also failed to support the democratic project in North and East Syria. The region’s lack of official status – which means it is denied direct access to UN aid, or the $2,000,000,000 coronavirus relief fund – also means it is denied any part in official negotiations. UN political figureheads regularly and correctly highlight the parallel humanitarian crisis in Idlib, held by the al-Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, while making little or no mention of the ongoing crisis in North and East Syria.

 Most recently, the Brussels IV fundraising conference ended with a lengthy statement which avoided making almost any mention of the crisis or political project in North and East Syria, repeatedly praising Turkey even as NES representatives were excluded from formal and informal discussions.

 Russia are manipulating UN aid just as the US are making political use of the Caesar Sanctions, with both sides engaging in a dangerous cold war at the cost of Syrian lives. UN member states – particularly the other members of the UN Security Council – must explore other routes to exert pressure on Russia, and force it to stop using humanitarian aid as a weapon of war. Among other things, this may require the US to rethink its policy of punishing economic sanctions which will immiserate ordinary Syrians without having any real effect on the Assad government.

 Audience Question: Is it true that ISIS members are returning to areas under Turkish control such as Afrin, Tal Abyad and Ras al Ain?

 TM: Yes. Rojava Information Center recently submitted a paper to the United Nations, based on months of research, detailing the biographies and identities of scores of former ISIS members, commanders and emirs now living and operating freely in the regions under Turkish occupation. Most recently, ISIS’ former top emir in Raqqa, Fayez al-Aqal, was killed by a US drone strike in the Turkish-controlled city of Bab. At the time of his death, he was carrying a Turkish-issued fake ID card, and had been openly organizing meetings with other top ISIS brass in Turkish-occupied Tel Abyad.

 The RIC research – which focuses on ISIS members originally from the regions which now make up North and East Syria – only scratches the surface. Regions like Afrin and Sere Kaniye were the most secular, peaceful and democratic regions of Syria, housing hundreds of thousands of IDPs who had fled from elsewhere in Syria to the sanctuary of these regions. With Turkey’s invasions and policy of forcible demographic change, installing tens of thousands of jihadist Sunni Arab militiamen